Two days later, Sunday, I'm standing outside Chance House. It was Kate who tipped me off, saw the notice. Re-development work is due to start, apparently, in a week's time. Chance House is going to be a Youth and Unemployment Centre. There will be offices, computer facilities, a games room with snooker, table football and ping-pong, a canteen selling cheap food. I look up at the Top Floor Flat. What, I wonder, will they put in David Sorrel's room?
“So,” says a voice. “Another goodbye.”
I don't have to turn to know who it is. But I turn anyway.
“Hello Mr Sorrel.” It's the first time I have seen Ernest since the Sharing. I expect him to be bowed but he is not.
“Are you going in?” he asks.
I hadn't been thinking of doing anything of the sort, but one look at his face and I say: “Yes.”
We walk around the back together. He's brought a cane, an ebony one with a silver knob. He uses it to steady himself on the tussocky ground. He skirts the bottles and the beer cans and the microwave with barely a glance. Nothing seems to surprise him in fact and I realise, as he passes into the kitchen, that the territory is quite familiar to him. He crosses the kitchen floor and bends to move the brick.
“It was you,” I exclaim. “You all the time. Moving the brick!”
“And you,” he replies. “You moved it too.”
He straightens up, holds the door for me. “After you.”
I go into the corridor. A faint drip, drip, drip.
Where does the water come from? “I ask.”
“That,” he says, “I never managed to understand.”
There is morning light in the house and, with Ernest beside me, it seems impossible to imagine that one could be frightened here. He moves with care across the smashed-tile hallway and he pokes the wallpaper on the stairs with the stick, just to be sure where the treads begin and end.
“I always expected squatters to move in.” he said. “But they never did.”
“How long have you been coming here?” I ask.
“Only since the mesh got pulled off the kitchen, about a year I
suppose. On and off.”
“No, of course I didn't pull it off,” he laughs. “That's why I expected squatters.”
We ascend the final stairs, passing through the fire door and on, up to the landing. He pauses there, but only for a moment and then he goes into the room with the million ducks. I follow, keeping behind him as he makes his way to the window. He looks out.
“This is the room it happened in,” I say. “Isn't it?”
“Yes,” he says with his back to me.
Then I can't not know for any longer.” Why did he do it, Mr Sorrel? Why did he jump?”
“Jump?” Ernest turns around. “David never jumped.”
I stand stupefied. Underneath me the floorboard creaks.
“That's just an old story,” he adds, not without kindness. “Houses like this attract stories. Especially houses where there has been tragedy.” He pauses. “David died of an asthma attack. He couldn't catch his breath.”
“Yes. Asthma. Just asthma.” My face must be registering disbelief because he continues: “It was different in those days. Preventative drugs were not as they are today. He had an attack, a very severe attack…” he trails of.” There was nothing to be done.” Ernest taps the floor with his cane. Tap. Tap. Tap. “Nothing and no-one could have saved him.”
There’s a hint of aggression here, the glitter of the crow. He thinks I'm going to contradict him. When I don't, he says into the silence: “But Edith couldn't accept that. Edith thought if she'd been with him, he wouldn't have died. She thought she could have - should have - saved him.”
“She wasn't with him?”
“No. He died here. In this room. Alone.”
“I don't understand”
“This flat belonged to Marigold Linley. A friend of Edith's. She left David with Marigold when she went for her singing lessons.”
“I thought you said you stopped her singing,” I whisper.
“I did. Or tried to. More fool me. That's why it was a secret. Why
the tutor couldn't come to our house. Why Edith had to go out to his
house and David - be left here.”
“Bullied?” he repeats. “No… no, I don't think so. Well… oh, it's difficult to understand now. But women didn't have careers in those days. They were wives and mothers. That's what I wanted her to be. I couldn't see that her sights were - set somewhere else. That she had a star. She had to follow her star.” He's leaning on the stick now, his thin body looking suddenly as if it needs support. “Afterwards, when I met the tutor, he said she was very good. He said she had a great talent. A great future.”
“But she gave it all up!”
“Yes. After David died, she swore she would never, ever sing again. Not a note. And there was to be no music in our house. Even the sound of other people singing, whistling in the street drove her into a frenzy. She was quite mad,” he says meditatively, “for a while.”
Sunshine comes in at the broken window and behind Ernest's head, dust motes dance.
“She pushed it all away. Pushed us away. The singing, David, me - we didn't exist any more. She lived on some other plane, inhabited a different part of her mind. And she wasn't unhappy. She was all right. So I went along with it. I thought it was her way of healing. So I played along.”
“You divorced her.” I say harshly, although it's none of my business, although it's not my parents' divorce.
“Yes. Because she asked me for that. She wanted it. The final break with the past. I had to go.” He smiles wearily. “But I never left her in my heart. And some deep part of her I think, I hope, understood that.”
“I'm sorry.” I say then.
“I thought the coat would cure her. I really believed it.”
“And it would have done. But I got involved in a fight. One of the feathers got broken. One I got from this room. A Chance House feather. I broke it. And then I couldn't find it and that's why she died.”
“No,” cries Ernest, “don't you dare say that! You must never say, never even think such a thing again.” He shakes the stick at me as if it were a fist. “It was not your fault. Edith died of cancer. It happens. People die and it's nobody's fault. That's what Edith refused to accept. For thirty years she blamed herself. Because she wasn't there. Hadn't saved David. But that was rubbish. All the doctors told her so. Nothing and no-one could have saved him. But she let her guilt dominate her life. Her music, her talent, her energy, the love we shared, all of it got buried with David.
“And David himself. The son we had both adored. She couldn't even say his name. Until she met you, Robert. All those years and I wanted so much to talk of him. My boy. My son. If it was anyone's fault it was mine. Not that she didn't blame me. And rightly so. That's why I took everything, the silence, the pushing away, the divorce. I deserved it all. But don't you dare blame yourself, Robert Nobel. You gave Edith everything.”
“That night at the Sharing then,” I say slowly, “it was the first time…”
“Yes. The first time she'd sung. For thirty years. That's what you gave her, Robert. You gave her back her singing. Her song. Returned it to her. Returned her to herself.” He draws a deep breath. “And you returned her to me.” Then he adds, stiffly, “For which I will never be able to re-pay you.”
“It wasn't all one way,” I say then.
“She gave me stuff too.”
“She is – was - the first person who ever made me think if I wanted something, I could go for it.”
“I wish she could hear you say that. I think that would make her the proudest woman on earth. That opportunity is all she ever really wanted for herself, for David.”
“You're the sort of boy who can fly,” I say.
“Yes,” he says.” She was always saying that to David. You can do it. You can fly. Whatever you want, David, you can make it happen.” He sighs. “And I should have let her fly. That's what love is. Letting your loved ones fly.”
He moves away from the window. “Will you come to the funeral?”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Thank you. She would have liked that.” He pauses. “I wish I could give you something… something of hers…”
“Why?” I say. “When she's given me so much?”
“Thank you,” he says, all choked up for a moment. “Thank you.” Then he recovers himself, tap, tap, taps with the stick. “Well, perhaps we could meet sometimes. Have tea maybe? Or hot chocolate. What would you say to a hot chocolate, Robert?”
“Good morning, hot chocolate.”
“I'm sorry?” says Ernest.
“It's one of my dad's jokes. Not brilliant, I admit. But he does have other qualities. Oh,” I look at my watch. “I almost forgot. I should be leaving. I'm meeting him for lunch today.”
“Another time then.”
We leave Chance House together. I say a silent goodbye to the million mother ducks and the three million ducklings. Ernest taps his way downstairs and out into the spring. As we come round the side of the house, a man with a clipboard shouts: “Oi - this is private! Private property!”